The Painful Birth of the Romantic Heroine: Stael as Political Animal, 1786-1818
Isbell, John, The Romanic Review
1. On a raison d'exclure les femmes des affaires politiques et civiles. Stael, 1810.
2. Depuis la Revolution, les hommes ont pense qu'il etait politiquement et moralement utile de reduire les femmes a la plus absurde mediocrite. Stael, 1800(1).
One author, two verdicts. What is going on? This paper argues that Stael chose art only when banned by men from politics, under Napoleon in particular. The "Romantic heroine" her life and works handed to posterity was a fallback position, used by a woman exiled from the Revolutionary stage. Stael's complete works make this clear, splitting into four periods.
1. Ancien Regime.
Born in 1766, Stael is writing short moral comedies by the age of twelve--Les Inconvenients de la vie de Paris. In 1786, she marries and turns twenty, and her output now slowly pushes the envelope of discourse expected by society of a very young salonniere: outlines of novels; portraits and eloges; synonymes, a remarkable Folle, and vers de circonstance published in Grimm's Correspondence for the royal courts of Europe. In 1786-7, she completes two plays, Sophie ou les sentiments secrets and Jane Grey, and prepares her Lettres sur Rousseau. This output may seem pre-political, but it is already breaking the hermetic seal of Versailles and of women's private art, moving toward Paris and the citizen's public arena. Jane Grey is only the first of Stael's five Voltairean political tragedies of 1787-97, including Montmorency, soon to be published at last, and the lost Jean de Witt. Domenech also has brilliantly shown how Stael uses Rousseau in 1788 as an homme de paille for Necker, giving her father free publicity on the eve of the Etats-generaux--a diversionary strategy she will repeat throughout her career. Stael's correspondence shows this same move toward politics, linked to her growing maturity, a change of mood in France, Necker's role as Premier Ministre and her own marriage to the Swedish ambassador; thus, her bulletins on French politics for the King of Sweden(2).
Stael's most familiar works in this decade again seem at first largely "female", or private and apolitical: Zulma and the Recueil de morceaux detaches,1794-5, and her treatise on the influence of the passions, 1796. But three facts destroy that first impression.
First, the politics in these fine and under-studied works. Mirza and Zulma from the Recueil are tragic heroines with a public voice; its Epitre au malheur and her book on the passions explicitly discuss the effects of the Terror, title of her lover Constant's later brochure. Stael adds that her volume's three nouvelles date from before 1786, but Mirza and Pauline already attack the slave trade, another constant of Stael's life up to her work with Wilberforce in 1814. Often, in Stael's case, full titles reveal our misleading shorthand: thus, De l'influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations.
Second, other published material: her 1790 Eloge of the strategist Guibert; her 1791 tract on public opinion; her three series of Reflexions, 1793-5, on the queen's trial, on peace--her first signed work, in 1794--and on domestic peace; and her 1798 treatise on how to establish the Republic. Again, these texts are little-studied. Like de Gaulle, Guibert had warned of mobile armies amid a caste who favoured fortifications; Stael's lover Narbonne faces that same resistance as Minister for War in 1791-2, before their views conquer Europe. Her 1791 tract on how to identify a national majority pinpoints the way extremists in Paris could hijack a Revolution once desired by the nation as a whole: a common theme two centuries later. Her thorough series of Reflexions appeal for common sense from the French government and people, and practical solutions to civil unrest--mud in the eye for those who dismiss her as irrational. And her 400-page tract on how to ground the Republic continues these themes, including the elements of a draft constitution. …